Manage Energy, Not Engagement

by Brady Wilson


After 20 years of trying to get it right, few organizations truly understand employee engagement or have failed to see its improvement in their company. And yet, there are organizations that have increased engagement — but find their employees are drained and depleted.

What causes this “engagement paradox”? It’s simple. Managing engagement turns out to be just another drain on the most precious resource in business today: energy.

It’s not that employees don’t want to be engaged. They’re committed and loyal workers; however, in today’s “over-extended” era, they’re simply struggling to make it to the weekend. Lacking energy, they resort to quick fixes, workarounds and reactive firefighting, thereby hardwiring depletion into the system.

To create a sustainable, innovative and high-performing organizational culture, businesses need to focus on both engagement and energy — essentially, moving “beyond engagement” as we know it today.

Simply put, employees need a pep in their step.

Brain science provides us with an understanding of how to get there. Here are 10 ways for leaders to look at engagement differently, shift their thinking toward a culture that puts energy first — and reap the rewards.

Manage energy, not engagement. Brain science shows that when we are low on energy, the first thing we lose is our “executive function” — our ability to focus, to regulate emotions, prioritize, plan, make decisions and take action.

Traditionally, engagement initiatives focus on getting employees to give more discretionary effort. But effort without energy spawns duct-tape fixes and fire-fighting — creating the perfect ecosystem for depletion. By managing employees’ energy instead of engagement levels, leaders safeguard people’s executive function — and unlock the energy that fuels passion, innovation and enthusiasm, generating sustainable engagement.

Deliver experiences, not promises. The brain is wired to pursue activities that promise reward — regardless of whether the experience of reward is actually delivered. Often, leaders gravitate toward elaborate recognition/reward programs and intricate performance management systems that hold — but don’t deliver on — the promise of fixing issues once and for all. This creates cynicism, corroding the entire employee experience — and employees begin to see employee engagement as nothing more than a con game.

To energize employees, leaders must make a critical shift from the promise of reward to delivery of reward — moving beyond non-rewarding engagement activities to helping people experience the reward of an energized environment.

Target emotion, not logic. We live and work in a “feelings economy,” where feelings — not intellect — drive employee behavior. Research shows the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center) defines what we experience as reality. So if employees don’t feel they’re valued, all the assertions, declarations and assurances in the world can’t make it true for them.

Employee engagement initiatives that target the rational brain ignore the importance of the emotional brain in defining each individual’s day-to-day experience. To inject employees with energy in their day-to-day jobs, leaders must appeal to the emotional brain. Taking time to understand what matters most to one‘s employees and then acting upon that information is an incredibly effective way to show compassion and support. And the benefits are huge: According to the Corporate Leadership Council, tapping in to emotional engagement enables employees to offer their employer 400 percent more discretionary effort!

Trust conversations, not surveys. Businesses that rely on annual engagement surveys get only a snapshot of the employee experience. They do not generate the intel needed to energize employees to do their very best on a daily basis.

Instead, leaders who shift from surveys to frequent, face-to-face, meaningful conversations with employees can generate energy and enthusiasm throughout an entire organization. This is because quality leader/employee conversations release all kinds of hormones in our brains: hormones that promote trust, focus and creativity; that deepen relationships and unlock results.

Seek tension, not harmony. The brain’s natural response to tension is to interpret it as a threat. Leaders often respond to tension by slipping into unhealthy behaviors such as overpowering others, giving in to the tension, or avoiding it altogether.

But, believe it or not, our brains are actually energized by tension. This is because the tension between the current way of doing things and the desired way of doing things can spark innovative thinking. When leaders learn to not avoid tension but instead stand amid it to deal with competing priorities, they can create surprisingly amazing solutions.

Practice partnering, not parenting. Because the emotional brain perceives “shared responsibility” as a risk, managers will often resort to parenting-type behaviors, like manipulating and micro-managing employees, which introduces negative feelings such as guilt and shame into the overall organizational culture.

The goal is to function solidly in an adult-to-adult mode. By shifting from a “parenting” to “partnering” managerial style, both parties can co-author powerful solutions that employees are willing to adopt and implement. In return, managers recoup time and mind-space previously spent on parenting.

Pull out the backstory, not the action plan. Too often, organizations take engagement survey results at face value and come up with broad-brush action plans without pausing to understand their context. These “one-size-only” strategies are devoid of quality conversation, practically guaranteeing employee resistance.

The brain thrives on connections — and in the business world, connections are realized through conversation. Through frequent, quality conversations, leaders can draw out the backstory behind engagement scores, identify what matters most to employees, and partner with them to create solutions that generate meaningful energy.

Think sticks, not carrots. Our brains respond more to “sticks” than to “carrots.” However, leaders often gravitate to offering carrots like recognition, cheerleading and inspiration. What they should be doing is looking for and addressing psychological forms of interference like bullying, self-doubt, unresolved conflict and team tension: things that undo employees’ ability to access their knowledge, experience, skills and strengths.

By “thinking sticks” and identifying and removing forms of interference, leaders can produce environments where employees can be their best selves — and entire organizations can experience stunning business gains.

Meet needs, not scores. As mentioned above, our brains make decisions for emotional reasons, and then justify those decisions rationally. When needs go unmet, employees may act out in unskillful ways — forming cliques, gossiping and creating friction — that permeate the organization with interference.

Leaders who meet employees’ individual needs (instead of focusing on annual survey scores) can inspire employees and sustain workplace energy — buoying employees’ energy and saving themselves precious time dealing with interoffice conflict.

Challenge beliefs, not emotions. Our brains do not allot us the resources to do something unless we are convinced something is possible. Self-limiting employee beliefs can produce low levels of agency and self-efficacy, bringing engagement initiatives to a standstill. According to science, it is not our capability but our belief in our capability that makes us effective.

Leaders who recalibrate employees’ unhelpful beliefs — targeting their personal feelings of self-doubt, second-guessing and frayed confidence — can produce a much greater sense of agency in their workforce.

Brady Wilson is co-founder of Juice Inc., a corporate training company that services organizations from Toronto to Los Angeles. Also a speaker, trainer and author, Wilson recently released his latest book, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need.

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